The ball was whipped in and nodded down into open space in front of the gaping goal. Fifth-year forward Nebojsa Popovic stepped up to it, with no defenders around him, and smashed the sitter towards goal. He raised his arms in despair, however, as the ball deflected off a Wisconsin defender standing on the goal line and went over the crossbar.
This play summed up the night for Michigan (7-4-3 overall, 2-1-2 Big Ten) as it drew Wisconsin (2-10-2, 0-4-1), 1-1, on Friday. The Wolverines created some chances with sustained possession and pressure, but failed to convert the possession in the final third into goals.
Wisconsin was content to sit deep in the game, absorbing pressure and making the game ugly, as it played direct long balls over the top to try and release its forwards into space. Several times throughout the match, the Badgers’ target forward even dropped as low as the edge of their own box to deal with Michigan’s attacks. Wisconsin was happy to just clear the ball up the field and relieve the pressure.
The Badgers looked to slow the game down, as they sought their first win in Big Ten play. They often resorted to time-wasting tactics to increase their chances of winning.
“Every time the ball went out, it took their goalkeeper two minutes to put the ball back in,” said Michigan coach Chaka Daley. “That’s a tactic of theirs, they try to cut the game almost in half.”
Michigan maintained extended possession in the game, particularly at the beginning of each half. But while the Wolverines’ possession and off-ball rotations led to decent build-up throughout the game, possession in the final third often was wasted and the final killer pass needed to unlock the Badger defense was missing. Michigan finished the game with 17 shots, but failed to create many clear-cut scoring opportunities.
“I thought we created quite a few chances in the first half,” Daley said. “Was there anything kind of clinical in the final third? Maybe not, but I think we had a lot of the ball, and we had some moments, some kind of half-chances.”
In the second half, the game devolved even more. Wisconsin imposed its physical style on Michigan, which found itself resorting to long balls later in the game as it grew more desperate to score.
The Wolverines were taken out of their rhythm and could not work the ball into good chances in the final third, so they went more direct. Michigan stopped looking to keep possession and build from the back through passing, instead hitting long balls towards a target forward and tried to win the ball high up the field to create more scoring chances. But in the end it was to no avail.
Even when Michigan did finally break through with a goal, it was through fortunate circumstances and not through creative play offensively. The Wolverines only got on the board courtesy of a Badgers own goal in the 75th minute. Senior forward Jack Hallahan made a driving run into the area and, though he initially lost possession, the ball was kicked off of him and into the air. Wisconsin’s defender Robin Olafsson attempted to clear the ball and sliced the ball backwards off of his shin, where it looped over the goaltender and into the goal.
Michigan’s defense held strong, stopping Wisconsin counter attacks and allowing the Wolverines to build from the back in possession for most of the game. But the attack was unable to support the defense with the breakthrough goals.
At the end of regulation, the Wolverines were on the receiving end of an unlucky call for a grab in the box on a set piece, leading to a Wisconsin penalty kick. Midfielder Noah Leibold put the penalty away, and Michigan was forced to settle for a disappointing draw in Ann Arbor.
Michigan stayed aggressive throughout the game and maintained pressure late. It changed formations and threw on an extra forward to try to win the game in overtime, but it did not pay off.
“We wanted to go for it for sure,” Daley said. “We wanted to try to find something.”